Archive for May, 2012

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¿No hablas español? Study Spanish in Puebla

Wednesday, May 30th, 2012

Photograph courtesy of Livit Immersion CenterWhen people ask me how I ended up in Puebla, I tell them that I arrived in 2007 to study Spanish, fell in love with the place and a Poblano, and decided to stay. That’s the short answer, anyway. The longer version is that, as a professional writer and editor — a bona fide word nerd — and a veteran traveler, I’d started to feel downright embarrassed that I wasn’t bilingual. How could I be an expert in English, my native tongue, yet functionally illiterate any other language? Wasn’t this the era of globalism?

“Spanish is spoken by more than 500 million people worldwide, which is reason enough to learn the language,” according to the University of Illinois at Springfield’s continuing education department. “But it’s even more compelling when you realize that about half of the population in the Western Hemisphere speaks Spanish, making it the primary language for as many people as English in this region of the world.” That includes at least one out of every 10 people who live in the United States.

If my previous and failed attempts at French and German were any indication, I knew that I wouldn’t master Spanish in a typical California classroom. So, my plan was to complete the summer intensive program at the Monterey Institute of International Studies and then study abroad in a full immersion program. “You can’t really learn a language unless you live it,” argued my MIIS instructor, a Cuban emigrant who’d taught Spanish in Colombia. I agreed and weighed immersion programs in Spain, Argentina, Chile, and Mexico. I ultimately chose the Spanish Institute of Puebla, because it was relatively close to home, surprisingly affordable, and highly recommended by the eight former students I’d contacted (including a dean at Stanford University). I’m glad I did. The experience proved life-changing, and after six months of hard work I’d built a solid foundation for my ongoing Spanish journey.

Do you ever wish you could speak Spanish or simply want to brush up on what you already know?

Puebla is an ideal place to study Spanish. I’ve had ample opportunity to use the language, and you will, too. Although many locals understand English, relatively few speak it with confidence: Unlike the typical salesmen who work Mexico’s beaches and stereotype tourists by their appearance (quoting prices accordingly), Poblanos rarely switch to English when they see a visitor approaching or hear a foreign accent. If your vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation aren’t perfect, that’s just fine. Any attempts to habla español will be appreciated.

Here are three reputable private schools in the Colonial capital for students who are serious about acquiring the language. All offer short- and long-term courses taught by native speakers. For more information, click on the links in each description.

Spanish Institute of Puebla

Calle 11 Oriente, Centro Histórico

Founded in 1984, the Spanish Institute of Puebla is the longest-running program of its kind in the city. Its standard three-week sessions incorporate listening, speaking, reading, and writing components, with heavy emphasis on conversational skills. A short placement exam can help to determine the appropriate course level, and students can earn university credits for their coursework. New classes start every three weeks.

In the standard program, students attend group classes — two to six people, max — at the school’s modern, three-story facility from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays and then engage in one-on-one activities with a native speaker from 2:30 to 4:30 p.m. The latter can include visiting the many museums, churches, and historic sites downtown; playing bingo or pool; drinking coffee on the main square; or even having your tarot cards read (in Spanish, of course.) The program also includes meals, lodging with local host families, and excursions to Cholula and Teotihuacan. Private classes are also available.

“The idea of living in Mexico … was a little intimidating before I arrived. The structure of the Institute made everything a breeze,” says Keith Larson, an attorney from Houston, Texas. “I concentrated on Spanish and learned a ton. I know I am not a fast learner of languages, and now I can easily communicate in Spanish.”

Livit Immersion Center

Calle Nuevo León, Colonia El Carmen

The Livit Immersion Center’s program is based on the premise that students learn best when they live in Spanish 24/7. The school, located inside a Colonial-era home (where its directors reside), devotes half of each day to instruction and the other half to practice and cultural discovery through activities and excursions. Students may substitute profession-specific tasks, such as shadowing a resident in a hospital or visiting an orphanage, for the latter.

The standard program runs 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. weekdays, with no more than four students per class. It includes all course materials, trips to nearby towns and attractions, daily meals, and accommodations with local families. (A student or couple who prefers privacy may also arrange to rent the on-site efficiency apartment.) Courses begin every Monday, and special group packages are available for up to 20 students.

“I have made two separate trips to Puebla to study with Livit Immersion Center, during which my ability to speak, converse, read, and write has improved dramatically,” says Richard Johnson, a law student at the University of Colorado in Boulder. “I attribute my progress to three things. First, I credit the school’s fun, practical, and efficient curriculum, intimate classes, and attentive professors. Second, I credit the accommodations. Throughout both of my stays in Puebla, I felt at home, enjoyed every amenity I desired, and ate delicious meals. Finally, Puebla is a beautiful, entertaining, and manageable city with a rich array of cultures, cuisine, and history.”

Spanish Awakenings

Calle Tepeyahualco, Colonia La Paz

Spanish Awakenings places equal emphasis on building language skills and cultural understanding. The language-training and home-stay program, run by a bilingual (Spanish-English) couple in their home, caters to families, small groups, and young adults. It offers two hours of daily classroom study, outings five days per week, and informal gatherings in the evenings to watch movies, play games, or talk about the day’s events.

The minimum stay is one week, but program directors Lucia and Richard Stone recommend four weeks for maximum benefit, particularly for beginners. The program includes on-site lodging, meals, snacks, an orientation tour of the city, a trip to the Cholula pyramid, and pickup and drop-off at the Puebla airport.

“I came to Mexico with some understanding of Spanish but I really was not able to speak, read and write in the language,” notes Ben Auton, managing partner of a video-game repair service in St. Louis, Missouri. “After a month at Spanish Awakenings, my ability to understand, read, and write the language has grown faster than I ever could have expected. I can understand a native speaker on the street, I can read a newspaper or book, and I can write a journal about what I did during the day.”

—Rebecca Smith Hurd

Photograph courtesy of Livit Immersion Center

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A Week’s Worth of Good Eats in Puebla

Wednesday, May 9th, 2012

A sampler plate at La Casita PoblanaIf I had to describe my life last week in Puebla in a single sentence, I’d say that I died and went to some sort of foodie Zion. Seriously, my experience was that divine: I spent seven whole days sampling a smorgasbord of regional cuisine, from humble street foods to elegant restaurant fare, crafted by talented cooks and chefs from around the state. I wish that I could eat so well on a regular basis, but alas neither my waistline nor my pocketbook would support it. That said, for one glorious, mouth-watering week, I ascended to gastronomic heaven in Puebla de los Angeles, the original city of angels.

What made it so great? Everything from preparing mole poblano on a traditional metate with cookbook author Mark Bittman to savoring the contemporary dishes of chefs Angel Vázquez and Pablo Salas paired with small-batch Mexican wines. My schedule was jam-packed with eating, drinking, cooking, listening to experts, and having close encounters with a few of my favorite food bloggers and celebrity chefs.

Want the juicy details? Proceed with caution. This post is likely to make you hungry.

Backstage at the International Mole Festival with Pablo, chefs Lopez and Bayless, and Adam GoldbergThey had all convened in Puebla for the first International Mole Festival, one of the many festivities commemorating the 150th anniversary of Cinco de Mayo. Indeed, my culinary bliss was made possible, at least in part, by the state’s international affairs office, which recruited me last fall to help organize and promote the event. Unlike previous mole festivals in Puebla, this one not only celebrated Mexico’s most iconic dish, but also demonstrated its influence on a global scale.

My role in the mole festival was relatively modest, but being involved left a big impression on my mind, my heart, and my stomach. So, I thought I’d share the highlights of my week’s worth of good eats — and food-related activities — in Puebla, in the hopes of enticing others to visit and attend future events.

Sunday

April 29, 3 p.m.: My in-laws and I descend upon Texas B-B-Q (29 Sur 722, Col. La Paz) to celebrate my husband Pablo’s birthday a day early, given the busy week ahead. Although foreign visitors may bristle at the thought of eating brisket in Puebla, carnivorous locals can appreciate meat cooked to fall-off-the-bone perfection, Lone Star State-style — and this is arguably some of the best barbecue south of the Texas border. The restaurant, which opened in early March, marinates its brisket in a special dry rub, smokes its own sausages and beef and pork ribs for hours, and makes its own secret barbecue sauce. It also carries a nice selection of imported beers (although, sadly, not Shiner Bock). We capped off our meal with an off-key rendition of “Las Mañanitas” and passed a complimentary Texas-shaped waffle, topped with berries and whipped cream, around the table. Our stomachs were primed for the rest of the week!

Monday

April 30, 7:30 p.m.: Angelica Bravo Gutiérrez, owner of La Casita Poblana (41 Poniente at 16 de Septiembre, Col. Huexotitla), arranges for a special tasting menu of some of Puebla’s more exotic delicacies at her restaurant. She and I had previously chatted about the fact that I often want to try certain dishes but feel too ashamed to order a huge plate of something that I may not enjoy. As an alternative, she serves up small plates of what seems like half her menu: gusanos de maguey (edible caterpillars), escamoles (ant larvae), tacos de sesos (pig brains), tostadas de pata de res and tinga (pickled cow jelly and chicken stew, respectively), guajolotes (sandwiches of fried-bread and shredded beef), huazontles capeados (deep-fried greens similar to goosefoot weed with panela cheese and an egg coating), chalupas (fried tortillas topped with salsa, onion, and shredded pork), sopa de médula (bone marrow soup), huazontles en salsa roja (the same goosefoot smothered in a tomato-based sauce), huitlacoche (corn smut), pipían verde con pechuga de pollo (chicken breast in a green pumpkin-seed mole) and, of course, the house mole poblano. Whew! Angelica paired each “course” with various Mexican wines, our favorite being a 2009 bottle of Equua, a blend of Grenache and petit Syrah from Baja California.

Tuesday

Mark Bittman takes a turn grinding ingredients on the metate.May 1, 10 a.m.: I return to La Casita with writer Mark Bittman. Mark, a featured speaker at the mole festival, was putting together a new presentation for Puebla and wanted to make mole poblano the old-school way. I tag along as his Spanish interpreter. We meet with veteran cook Doña Ramona in the kitchen. Flanked by a small team of helpers, she explains and demonstrates the process of charring, toasting, and/or frying various ingredients. She then slowly, laboriously begins grinding everything to a smooth, glossy paste on her metate, a 45-year-old slab of volcanic rock that her family in San Pablo del Monte uses to make everything from basic masa for tortillas to elaborate sauces like mole and pipián rojo. Mark and I take turns learning to press the well-seasoned mixture of fruits, nuts, and chiles into a fine paste, which is later brought to a boil and finished with chicken stock. Our version comes out a bit spicier than the restaurant’s recipe. Although this probably has to do with the chiles, I imagine that somehow the fire in Popocatépetl’s belly (which long ago created Doña Ramona’s kitchen stone) has somehow ignited our dish.

Wednesday

May 2, 9:30 a.m.: I pick up celebrity chef Rick Bayless — who’s traveled overnight from Chicago to get to mole festival on time — at the Mexico City Airport. He’s accompanied by Amado Lopez, his chef de cuisine at Xoco in Chicago. As if Rick’s culinary prowess and love of Mexican cuisine hadn’t won me over long ago, I become a fan for life during the two-hour car ride to Puebla when we start chatting about politics and agree that Jon Stewart should moderate a U.S. presidential debate. I’m further impressed when he spends what little time he has in Puebla (like 15 hours) visiting a friend’s new bakery, eating tacos árabes, and tweeting about a street vendor’s five flavors of potato chips. Later, during his talk, he shares personal notes that he took during his first visit to the state capital decades ago.

Salsa de chicales with pork, a specialty in Pahuatlán2:15 p.m.: I’m hungry. I wander among the International Mole Festival food stalls operated by cooks from 10 different municipalities around the state, from Chignahuapan to Huejotzingo. Everything looks and smells divine, but I gravitate toward the Pahuatlán booth. This small town is Puebla’s newest “pueblo mágico,” known for its natural beauty, artisanal goods (such as papel amate), and salsa de chicales (giant ants ground up with chiles served over pork). How could I resist? I’m so glad I couldn’t, because the spicy, savory dish was to-die-for.

Thursday

May 3, 10 a.m.: A series of talks about mole poblano by Puebla-based chefs begins, with Alonso Hernandez and Rodrigo Ibañez discussing its origins, Liz Galicia and Carlos Zorrilla sharing its traditions, and Angel Vázquez and David Fuentes tackling innovation. For me, this is the most exciting part of the festival. After all, it’s said that Poblanos are among the most talented cooks on the planet — and we’re finally getting to hear from some, on their home turf. They explore the legends surrounding the dish’s invention and subsequent evolution, agreeing that conflicting stories merely add to its allure. “No one has the ‘authentic’ recipe,” notes Carlos (a.k.a. Zorri). “Everyone can vary the ingredients.” Alonso refers to mole poblano as “the king of all sauces,” one versatile enough to combine with anything from beef ribs to lasagna, which Angel and David later underscore by passing out a chocolate truffle with mole poblano ganache that leaves festival attendees begging for more (see Friday).

“The best mole is the one served in my house. Right, Mom?” —Chef Liz Galicia

5 p.m.: A group of foreign friends and restaurateurs are interested in a market tour, so we head off on foot to Mercado de la Acocota in Barrio de la Luz. En route, we stop at a molino to see where busy cooks (who don’t have time to use a metate) go to get their masas and moles processed in large batches. We stop at a grocer to buy chiles and find cured goat preserved from last fall’s traditional slaughter in Tehaucán. We search for a lady inside the market who makes a mole with this meat but come up empty-handed. We console ourselves with a sandwich from Cemitas Beto and a pineapple soda.

7:45 p.m.: We cap off a spectacular day with dinner at El Mural de los Poblanos (16 De Septiembre #506, Col. Centro). After admiring the brand-new Cinco de Mayo-themed painting in the entrance hall, we sit down at a table for nine to enjoy a flight of mezcal (with expert tasting notes from foodie Lesley Tellez), a couple bottles of Barón Balché, grilled panela cheese, and assorted salads and entrees, including an exquisite ensalada de verdolagas (microgreens mixed with local cheese, tomatoes, nuts, and avocado) and arrachera (flank steak) grilled to perfection and served with crispy sweet-potato chips. Tip: You know you’ve picked a good restaurant when Mexico City-based chef Monica Patiño and her entourage are dining a few tables away.

Friday

May 4, 3:30 p.m.: Pablo and I head over to foodie Adam Goldberg’s part-time digs in Cholula, where he’s promised to make us “the perfect cup of coffee.” Adam is a connoisseur of the caffeinated brew and owns the gear to prove it (which he lugs all over the world). No kidding: His coffee-making rig is worthy of a how-to article in Wired. It comprises tools for calculating, measuring, and testing whether any given beverage has the proper water-to-coffee ratio. Or something like that. In any case, the man knows how to whip up a strong, well-balanced cup of joe at high altitude (7,000 feet)!

Lesley and Gloria make mole truffles with chef Angel Vázquez5 p.m.: Back to those mouth-watering mole truffles. When the chef himself offers to teach Gloria Dominguez, a California restaurateur, how to make them and then invites you to join the class — and bring a few friends — how do you say no? You don’t. So, I turn up at Intro Restaurant (Calzada Zavaleta #5624, Col. Zavaleta, San Andrés Cholula) with my other half and foodies Lesley Tellez and Kate Blood. We watch Angel Vázquez deftly put together a chocolatey ganache filling with mole mixed in, and then we get our hands “dirty” while piping, rolling, and dusting the chocolate-coated candies with pulverized baked tortillas. We sample our work with a bottle of Aborigen winery’s Tinto de la Casa.

Saturday

May 5, 8:30 p.m. To celebrate the 150th anniversary of Cinco de Mayo, we could have attended the free concert by Marc Anthony at Cuauhtémoc stadium. But rather than fight the elements and hordes of people, we opt to splurge on the special menu back at Intro Restaurant, where Angel Vázquez and visiting chef Pablo Salas put together a contemporary six-course dinner with Mexican-wine pairings just for the occasion. The experience is world-class. Carp-roe tacos with cilantro foam. Snapper sashimi with fava-bean purée, warm butter, crispy artichoke bits, and preserved lime. Pork “meatloaf” with almonds, raisins, and epazote. Oxtail with cactus paddle, cauliflower, and grape tomato salad. Braised beef rib in mole poblano with a bean tamal, baby carrots, and chayote.

Did I mention that I died and went to foodie heaven? Many thanks to all of the cooks, chefs, friends, and colleagues who made my week so unbelievably delicious.

—Rebecca Smith Hurd

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